The Season Just Gone
Liverpool’s 2015-16 was as frustrating as it was promising. Every up was swiftly followed by a down and every down was as depressing as each up was electrifying. Brendan Rodgers’ time in the Anfield hotseat came to an unceremonious end in October – it says everything about how far Liverpool have fallen that the sacking of the Northern Irishman was arguably the highlight of their season – and the arrival of Jürgen ‘Charisma’ Klopp supposedly hailed the beginning of a new era in the red half of Liverpool: finally, the Reds were going back to the top of English football.
Unsurprisingly, to anyone with half a brain, it didn’t quite work out like that. The much maligned Rodgers left Liverpool 10th in the Premier League, having finished 6th in 2014-15, and the much heralded Klopp eventually finished 8th. This is not to say that Klopp is to blame, or that he should have done better: more that the expectations placed upon him from the beginning were way too high.
Comparing Liverpool’s squad to that of their rivals – and factoring in the incredible fixture congestion they had throughout the entirety of last season, as they reached two cup finals – it’s hardly surprising that Liverpool ultimately ran out of steam. The question is: will they avoid the same fate this time?
The Season Ahead
Even now, every reason to believe in Klopp’s Anfield revolution comes accompanied by a significant caveat. Although many Liverpool fans would love to think that they have every tool required to mount a serious title challenge, they remain as far as ever from actually being considered genuine contenders. At their best, they can wipe the floor with any team in the division. At their worst, they can be totally outplayed by all comers. Their biggest problem is that they play to their worst just as often as they do to their best.
Klopp’s mission this season is to find some level of consistency and make this Liverpool team more than the sum of its part. In the first two games, we’ve seen both Jekyll and Hyde: a thrilling and ruthless attacking performance saw the Reds smack four in at the Emirates, but they took their foot off the gas after the fourth goal and allowed Arsenal to score two soft goals and force a needlessly tense finale; at Burnley last weekend, they were close to zero out of ten, a 2-0 defeat the least they deserved.
It says it all that the Guardian recently published a ‘How long will Liverpool stick with Klopp?’ article. Admittedly, the article is as much about the knee-jerk hire-and-fire culture of this era as much as it is about Klopp’s failure to push Liverpool on in his 10 months in charge, but it remains true that Liverpool were arguably expected to be better than this by now.
There are no surprises where Klopp’s teams are concerned: constant explosive energy across the pitch, loads of intensity with and without the ball, lots of fast breaks with quick, selfless passing and positional interchanges. Klopp almost exclusively used a 4-2-3-1 formation at Borussia Dortmund but has more typically favoured a 4-3-3 since moving to Liverpool, perhaps reasoning that his defence is too fragile to play without a dedicated holder in front of them.
If there can be a criticism leveled at Klopp based on his time at Anfield to date, it’s that his system hasn’t ever balanced defence and attack adequately: too often they appear irresponsibly attacking, their weak points at the back hopelessly exposed; when they’ve looked defensively solid, it’s been at the expense of all attacking threat. Most truly elite managers wouldn’t be having these problems 10 months after arriving – although it must be conceded that most truly elite manager don’t be wasting their time working with the likes of Simon Mignolet, Alberto Moreno and Jordan Henderson.
They can be brilliantly incisive on the break, with the movement and passing of Roberto Firmino – ably supported by Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and now Sadio Mané too – key to their strength at transitions. Almost all of their attackers are quick to burst in behind and selfless when through on goal, qualities always associated with Klopp’s iconic Dortmund team. With Spurs likely to push up the pitch and squeeze the space in the middle, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose will have to be very aware of their positioning, and careful not to overcommit.
If Klopp’s press clicks and Liverpool have one of their twenty minute spells in which they look good enough to blow any team away, Spurs will find it hard to rescue anything in the remaining seventy minutes. Liverpool remain a monumentally frustrating work in progress, but if they produce their best for a short time they can afford to play really badly for the rest of the game.
Also, if Daniel Sturridge plays, it’s worth remembering that he’s really, really, really good.
The obvious, even glaring, weakness is that they have so many individuals who just aren’t up to scratch. Mignolet remains absolutely hopeless, Dejan Lovren is little better and Alberto Moreno may be even worse. Jordan Henderson is somehow still club captain, but any more performances like his showing at Burnley and he’ll be struggling to get on the pitch for Tranmere Rovers, let alone leading out Merseyside’s most celebrated club. These guys are capable of losing to just about anyone.
As previously stated, the tactical balance remains to be found by Klopp and Liverpool usually look somewhat lopsided and clumsy as a team. While Spurs have hardly pulled up trees so far this season, they haven’t looked anywhere near as bad as Liverpool routinely have in the last couple of years. On a simple "this team looks like a team, and this one doesn’t", Spurs can categorically be said to be better than Liverpool.
Also, Daniel Sturridge basically never plays. Also also, Coutinho wastes so many promising positions by shooting from distance that it’s laughable.
Spurs will probably be at full strength bar the injured Hugo Lloris, while Liverpool could include Sturridge up front and shoehorn Coutinho into central midfield, if they feel like playing gung-ho.
These games always seem to promise so much on paper and deliver so little in practice. A drab 1-1.